Secretary Spellings, do you want your children “left behind”?

Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings wrote an op-ed piece which appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on Tuesday. It begins:

“Pick up any newspaper . . . and you’ll see them. Predictions that the world is getting ‘flatter.’ Warnings that other nations are catching up to America in the global economic race. Calls by policymakers and pundits that we must raise our standards to compete.”

This is an op-ed piece, so I guess I’m going to have to accept grand statements without any actual evidence to support them. I’ll accept that the United States is perhaps losing some of its competitive edge in the global economy. Is that because of education or because China can produce goods that even after shipping are cheaper than domestic products? Are we slipping or is the rest of the world finally entering the Industrial Revoultion?

“Five years ago, America raised its standards with the pasage of the No Child Left Behind Act. Its mission — to bring all students up to grade level or better in reading and math by 2014 — is planting the seeds that will grow into a new generation ready to compete with the world. Its formula is simple: high standards plus accountability plus resources equals results.”

On the subject of global competition, I found this bit of insight interesting. Singapore outscores American students in math and science and has for a very long time. In fact, by test scores, Singapore is number one in the world. But America persists in beating Singapore “in the real world” of producing world leaders in the fields of science and technology. Why? Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Singapore’s Education Minister, has some fascinating insight which supporters of No Child Left Behind really need to reflect on.

“We both have meritocracies,” Shanmugaratnam said. “Yours is a talent meritocracy, ours is an exam meritocracy. There are some parts of the intellect that we are not able to test well — like creativity, curiosity, a sense of adventure, ambition. Most of all, America has a culture of learning that challenges conventional wisdom, even if it means challenging authority. These are the areas where Singapore must learn from America.” — MSNBC

Things which don’t test well: creativity, curiosity, a sense of adventure, ambition. Things which are needed in the real world to maintain our competitive edge. Aspects of our culture and educational system we are jeopardizing in order to copy Singapore’s exam meritocracy through the accountability measures within NCLB. Secretary Spellings please, before continuing with the rhetoric, reflect on what is truly needed to be successful in life and in the workplace and determine whether that can be tested in multiple choice format.

“We are witnessing those results in California. Fourth-grade reading proficiency has shot up eight percentage points in two years (2003-05), according to the California Report Card. Proficiency in math rose five percentage points In San Francisco, nearly half the students scored at grade level in reading and math, compared to 40 percent in 2003.”

Is that because of NCLB, or because of measures the state of California had already undertaken in order to improve education in the state? Or is it due to the increasing pressure to lower state standards in order to keep pace with NCLB’s progress requirements? And what of the districts not faring so well as to have 50% of students passing? States like Minnesota who have historically produced the highest results on all measures of academic success?

The Office of the Legislative Auditor estimates that “even if Minnesota students showed a modest improvement in test scores and educational proficiency, 99 percent of the state’s elementary schools would fail to make AYP 10 years from now, and 65 percent of the elementary schools receiving Title I funding would have to be ‘restructured.'” — City Pages

Why is it, Secretary Spellings, that we are so graciously praising mediocrity and penalizing success? But if someone questions the real outcome of this act, we get the standard answer we’ve heard in almost every speech:

“Whose son or daughter do you not want learning at grade level? Do you want your child left behind?”

No, Secretary Spellings. And that is exactly the point. Here is some rhetoric of my own: increased emphasis on minimum competency testing creates minimum competency classrooms. I want my children to learn so much more than how to answer multiple choice questions based on lower order thinking skills and how to fill in all the bubbles neatly with a number two pencil.

I will grant you that the research-based instructional strategies I learned in teacher trainings in Texas while Bush was still governor and you were heading up the Texas Reading Initiative and Student Success Initiative were excellent. They confirmed many of the things I had learned in my teacher education courses and in my summer institute with Teach For America. If the focus of NCLB were to make sure that every school district had access to these kinds of materials, there would be a very real chance of seeing some long-term benefit. But most of my fellow teachers commented after these sessions, “Who has time for that?” So we returned to our classrooms with the pressure of the test forcing trained teachers to focus more on test prep than education. This experience of a Texas teacher is not unique.

She was dismayed to see, upon returning one day from lunch, that the books for her week’s lessons had been set aside. In the center of her desk was a stack of test-prep booklets with a teacher’s guide, and a note saying, “Use these instead of your regular curriculum until after the TAAS (a standardized test).” The TAAS test date was three months away. (Meier 4)

Secretary Spellings, you are from Texas. Did you really not know what these reforms were doing to the state of Texas? And what they are now bringing to the entire nation? Is there not more to education than learning those all important skills like “cross out the answers you know are wrong and then guess” and “if you have answered with the same letter three times in a row, one of them is probably wrong?”

You have a school aged daughter and one in college. Don’t you want more for your children?


  1. Meier, Deborah. Will Standards Save Public Education? Boston: Beacon Press, 2000.

One thought on “Secretary Spellings, do you want your children “left behind”?

  • October 1, 2006 at 7:59 pm

    Hey, we have Even Start now, too. The only way to give kids an “even start” is to start them off at six weeks in the public school.

    To be fair, this program actually largely concentrates on the parents and parenting skills, but do you want the state teaching how to parent?

Comments are closed.